Summer Conventions '97
The priest paused before the worshipper standing before him with outstretched hands; then he placed the communion bread in the worshipper's palm. "The body of Christ," he said. "This way, please." And he gently but firmly pushed the worshipper into the proper line for the communion cup.
Arranging a communion service for a large congregation is always tricky; on June 19 at the Philadelphia Convention Center, the Episcopal Church took upon itself the quixotic task of serving communion to 200 bishops, 900 lay and clergy delegates, and nearly 8,000 visitors. Around the hall were scattered dozens of Eucharistic ministers holding pitchers of wine and platters full of pita bread stacked like pancakes.
This was the main service of the Episcopal Church's General Convention, and it began less than an hour after the church's bishops voted to make women's ordination mandatory in all regions of the church. One bishop now intended to retire under protest; another planned to engage in civil disobedience against the new rules. Amidst this turmoil, the quarrelling bishops silently processed into the hall.
"Diocese of South Carolina . . . Diocese of West Tennessee . . . Diocese of Upper South Carolina . . . Diocese of Nicaragua . . ."
Representatives from the church's 97 regions stepped forward to present their offerings as the congregation watched. Some church members were dressed in shorts and brightly-colored tee-shirts; others were in suits. Some church members bowed and crossed themselves every few minutes during the service; other church members stood motionless. Here Episcopalians of all varieties worshipped peacefully together – but once the church members left this hall to return to the legislative sessions, things would change. How could the Episcopal Church lift from itself the burden of its present battles?
You can't, said the archbishops of Canterbury. Nor should you want to.
The Most Rev. George Carey, head of the Church of England and of the worldwide Anglican Communion, stood in the pulpit of the central sanctuary and quietly attacked the idea that Episcopalians should carry less of a burden than they do. "Bend your neck to my yoke and learn from me," the archbishop said, quoting Jesus in the Bible lesson just read, "for my burden is easy and my yoke is light."
Certainly, he said, the church's burden seemed anything but easy at the moment. Taking a swipe at the media, Archbishop Carey said that some outsiders "have got it into their heads that this General Convention is somehow going to sound the death-knell either of the Episcopal Church or of the Anglican Communion or possibly both." One of the English newspapers, he said, recently ran a headline that read, "Vultures gather over the head of George Carey."
"Well, surprise, surprise," said Archbishop Carey amidst laughter. "I felt like writing to the paper that I am sorry to disappoint everybody but I am still alive and so is our church." The burden that the church carries, he told the congregation, was not a sign of death but of life. Christians were told by Jesus to take on heavy burdens; those who willingly carry such burdens are then transformed.
"Whatever the challenges, the tensions that arise from time to time, I know that the Episcopal Church will be there in the thick of things facing up to it all," he said. But in doing so, church members must not give in to the temptation to let their battles destroy the church. "The greatest heresy of all is the failure to live and work together as Christians when we disagree," he said, "and we dare not, must not, should not allow any issue, however personally sacred to each of us, to become a matter that divides the church of God.
"Now at this point," he added, "some of you are looking for any coding. You are saying, ‘Ah, at last, here it comes. He is talking about homosexuality.' ‘Or its women priests or bishops?'" The archbishop paused as laughter rolled through the congregation. Smiling, he said, "Well, no. Not necessarily. For example, my church in England has for many years been driven by a troika of three high-spirited horses: evangelicals, liberals, and Anglo-Catholics. And at times in the past we have been deeply divided and bitterly entrenched. We have lobbed verses of scripture, like hand grenades, into one another's camps, and sometimes some verses of scripture have been lobbed back. Thank God we are learning to live together better these days. And perhaps God is reminding us through the deep secularism of Western Europe that our mission is far more important than the paltry things that divide us. So it is with you and the future of [the Episcopal Church] that you carry in the womb of this convention."
The service ended; the bishops processed out, Anglo-Catholics walking next to evangelicals, conservatives next to liberals. And as they did so, 9,000 voices sang in unison the words, "Come, labor on."
©1997 Heather Elizabeth Peterson